in other words

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Transcript #61 Sir David Adjaye Takes On Nation Myths

Guest Sir David Adjaye. Photo Matthew Magelof

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Charlotte Burns: Hello and welcome to In Other Words, where we cover everything you ever wanted to know about the art world but didn’t know who to ask. I’m your host, Charlotte Burns and today I’m joined by Sir David Adjaye, the award-winning architect who has designed buildings around the world, from luxury shops to libraries, from museums to social housing.

David Adjaye: I absolutely didn’t want to make a kind of other tableau or a kind of object that just said, “horror, horror, horror.”

Major projects include the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., which opened to critical acclaim in 2016, and the forthcoming National Museum of Slavery and Freedom in Cape Coast, Ghana. In addition to buildings, Adjaye designs an array of other products, including furniture.

We’re also joined by Amy Cappellazzo, a chairman at Sotheby’s and a co-founder of Art Agency, Partners.

Amy Cappellazzo: The very existence and success of the museum is its own righteous revenge on how long it took to get there.

Before we get to today’s episode, here’s your regular reminder to subscribe to our In Other Words newsletter at ArtAgencyPartners.com, where you can read our special edition around the Art Basel art fair. Now, onto the show.

David, where to begin? You have so many projects that I want to talk to you about.

David Adjaye: You’re kind.

Charlotte Burns: By the time this show airs the Venice Biennale will be upon us or around us. You are designing the first ever Ghana Pavilion. You are in the middle of working on the Studio Museum. You are working on a project called Ruby City, which is a building dedicated to an art collection in San Antonio, Texas. They’re just a few of the things that we’re going to touch on today. Tell us a little bit about the Studio Museum in Harlem.

David Adjaye: The Studio Museum is a very special project that has been brought to fruition by the incredible board with the Studio Museum and the City of New York to finally bring this extraordinary  organization—which I think has at the moment an incredible reputation in the world—and an infrastructure that just doesn’t match. It punches well above its weight. They have been able to go to the city to get a rezoning to get air rights and to get seed funding to start this incredible project. It is going on site in September. There’s a slow demolition happening now.

It’s a totally new build. It’s not a renovation. It’s going to be a new cultural institution, being remade on 125th Street—which is predominantly a commercial street but has these cultural anchors, the Apollo being one, I think the Studio Museum is another important one that’s there. We know that the street’s been rezoned, so it’s going up high. These will be very important anchors in that space.

Charlotte Burns: Yes. Forgive me. It’s a five-story building that’s going to replace the existing structure, adding lecture halls, increased gallery and exhibition space, a café, shops and a roof deck. In total it’s 82,00 sq. feet. 1,700 sq. feet will be devoted to galleries and exhibition space, which is a huge increase on the existing layout. The Studio Museum, as you say, has punched well above its weight for a long time. It seems like it’s going to be getting a building to match.

Amy Cappellazzo: Nothing short of that, I expect. Really.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

David Adjaye: No pressure.

Amy Cappellazzo: Yes, no pressure at all. I’d like to ask you a couple of questions. The museum in Washington, which opened in 2016 I believe—just sort of concurrent with the Trump administration if I’m not mistaken.

David Adjaye: Yes. Just before.

Amy Cappellazzo: Just before. Right. That completely blew me away. Honestly, sincerely, this is like adulation that’s slightly out of character for me, but I honestly have not had a museum experience like that—I don’t want to say ever, of course I have. I just can’t remember when it was that sublime. I wonder how that project—which is very, very different, you’re on the mall in Washington, D.C. and you have a historical burden that the Studio Museum doesn’t have—how did that inform what you’re doing at Studio? Is there any connection, any overlap?

David Adjaye: I am very interested in the way in which one organizes the journey from the outside world to content. That is a theme that you’ll see. It’s very different in the Studio Museum, but it’s very celebrated: the idea of the public passage is very amplified, and not just a kind of corridor between rooms. We spent a lot of energy and time on that.

The idea of building black institutions is also the connection. For me, what the Studio Museum is about is not seeing the Smithsonian as a one off that deals with a kind of long guilty history—200 years to make this building, but thankfully it’s done.

Amy Cappellazzo: Right. Right.

David Adjaye: But actually, the Studio Museum—

Amy Cappellazzo: Check.

David Adjaye: Yes, check. Everybody can relax.

[Laughs]

We’ve got a museum to slavery. Alright. That stuff.

No, it’s about institutional building. It’s about taking this community seriously, and their contribution, and supporting that in the way that one should in a country called America which supports all its diversity.

Amy Cappellazzo: Theoretically, right. I’ve been to the museum in Washington a number of times, so I’ve had very different kinds of experiences.

One thing that struck me is in Washington, you didn’t really—or if you did, it was a very sort of nominal, minimal afterthought—consider artists in it. I mean, that’s not really a museum dedicated to living artists. That’s a different kind of museum. Even though artists can do projects and participate, it’s a bit separate from the mission.

At Studio, it has a collection, there’s a historical context. But this is a celebration of the making and of the moment and frankly, of experimentation of things that work or don’t work or—

David Adjaye: Exactly.

Amy Cappellazzo: What was your sort of thought process around that?

David Adjaye: That’s a beautiful insight into the two worlds. I mean, one is a narrative museum predominantly. There is a contemporary art collection, or I should rather say a modern collection. You see it’s somewhat displayed in the foyer, and then you’ve got a collection space upstairs. But you’re right, it’s not really about that. I know that they’re now thinking about maybe sculptures in the garden. So that’s a public art program that will happen in the future.

Amy Cappellazzo: Still a Modernist intervention, though—

David Adjaye: Totally Modernist. Totally, in classical.

Amy Cappellazzo: Right. Yes.

David Adjaye:  Studio’s grounding mission is the idea of incubating the artists. In a way, the building is also metamorphosing that. It’s concretizing that. We know that there’s a work that we’ve been doing with the existing building—which is being done by Theaster Gates right now—which is to reconfigure the narrative and the patina, and the moments of the building into a monumental sculpture which is going to be celebrated in the main circulation space. It’s being embedded into the heart of the experience—the public experience. So that’s one moment.

Amy Cappellazzo: So, that would be a permanent piece.

David Adjaye: Permanent piece.

Then the way in which the building sets up its relationship to the public, I didn’t want just an art museum that was just an expression of architecture. I wanted it to be a series of frames that allow art to be honored. So, in a way, it’s also a series of opportunities. It’s been designed as a sort of ongoing curatorial program that is not just about internal programming, but external programming. The project is less about a kind of emblematic symbol and more about opportunity for occupation by artists.

Amy Cappellazzo: Okay. Two points architecturally—I should just mention for our listeners that I am a failed architect, so I will not—

David Adjaye: Oh, you are?

Amy Cappellazzo: I will not try to—

David Adjaye: You hardly failed. A different—

Amy Cappellazzo: I’m an architect of something, but not buildings.

The one thing that always struck me about the building is, first of all, it’s mid-block. So, how to do something sort of—

David Adjaye: Hard.

Amy Cappellazzo: Sexy, alluring in mid-block is like “woah”.

David Adjaye: Hard.

Amy Cappellazzo: You have a constraint on natural light, no corner—

David Adjaye: You got it.

Amy Cappellazzo: Means of egress, like how do you get there? What happens is you pass the hotdog vendor, the incense seller, the fake handbag guy, the guy playing drums with plastic pails and then you walk in. So, two things. Mid-block, how did you tackle that? What was the—

David Adjaye: Yes. So, mid-block was really tough. As you’ve said, it’s probably the hardest thingsfor architects. You’re basically dealing with a front and a back. You’re hoping to get—for me, you have to occupy the roof because that’s your only other elevation that you can deal with.

Amy Cappellazzo: Exactly.

David Adjaye: Basically, we didn’t try to fight it. Essentially, we got some variances from the city. I basically argued that we were making a cultural building and so we had to be able to differentiate the zoning requirement that’s allowing—

Amy Cappellazzo: Like the street wall?

David Adjaye: Yes, the street wall.

Amy Cappellazzo: So, you got to set back slightly?

David Adjaye: No. I can set back and set forward. So, we asked for certain projections and modeled. I was like, “Okay, can we model this because we want to talk about this being much more than just a curtain wall that has to do with the commercial world.”

Amy Cappellazzo: Exactly.

David Adjaye: It expresses itself very differently and it learns a lot of lessons from Breuer’s Whitney.

Amy Cappellazzo: Right.

David Adjaye: I mean that’s—

Amy Cappellazzo: But that’s on a corner.

David Adjaye: It’s on a corner and so it has the corner. But it has this idea of the expression which is different to the commercial world, which is the way in which you excavate, push back, etcetera. So, it learns those lessons.

I love the narrative you just gave me. The incense seller, the book, all of those amazing things which are the color of 125th Street. We just say, “Well, let’s fold it in.” We don’t fight it. We’ve made the building so that it kind of dissolves and creates a reverse stoop, which allows the street and the museum to become one whenever they choose. It’s a melting sort of fusion. The idea was that actually, on beautiful days— beautiful summer and spring days—the museum should just always be a porous marketplace idea. It’s like a marketplace between the street and this environment and that people should just be able to come in and wait and hang out. It’s not a door, it’s a gathering place. Of course, there are security issues, etcetera. But in a way, we’ve actually dealt with a lot of those things by pushing back the security membrane further in.

Amy Cappellazzo: I see, got it. Yes.

David Adjaye: It really can become a public realm space. That dissolve is really something that was very important in terms of the design thinking for me. It was great that the board and Thelma and her team really found ways to make that work because it’s challenging. But that’s a very exciting dissolve that I think is going to be something special.

Charlotte Burns: I wanted to ask you a little bit about this idea of thinking of histories and the difficulties of creating a building—which is, in a sense, a complete construction—with things that are much more fragmented. You often go into this idea of histories and memory and the ways in which those things are difficult or dispersed. I want to talk about monuments slightly separately—even though in a way, the Studio Museum and especially the National Museum of African American History and Culture in D.C., both of those are in ways monuments to histories that have been overlooked.

This idea of making things alive in that way, and especially with the weight of history of the D.C. building taking 200 years to do this. While it’s been incredibly celebrated now—it was named the cultural event of the year by The New York Times, it won an award this year from the American Institute of Architects—the process was difficult. You described the design process as eight years of pain with criticism that was deeply hurtful. You said in an article with the London Times, “if an excuse could be found to attack it, it was found. It was a struggle. I was tempted to walk away but that’s the one thing I’ll never do.”

You recently have come under other criticisms with the National Holocaust Memorial and Learning Center in London and you’ve said a similar thing: you’re going to fight. You’re not going to walk away.

How does it feel to be in that process? Because we’re talking now the other side about being celebrated and how did you conceive these things. But when you’re pushing for your vision against very difficult odds, how do you keep your vision clear?

David Adjaye: It’s an eternal discussion. I don’t know why I have a deep attraction to these kinds of fights, because they’re horrible. But in a way, I feel a certain sense of being alive and being able to contribute to shifting something which I think has atrophied into a problematic space.

So, I am interested in the agency of architecture as a device to open up and to speak about things that are maybe not necessarily spoken to in that arena. I am interested very much in that agency that architecture can bring in using construction.

It absolutely gets attacked because the problem is that architecture is now so codified in the idea of a series of systems and technologies and typologies that people just think they know what it is all the time. I refute that, especially in the public realm. I’m very interested in the idea that for cities and for our civilization—I’ll use the big thing, civilization—to be relevant, we have to continue to question what institutions are, how they’re made and who makes institutions.

Charlotte Burns: Also, with the D.C. building: it’s on the Mall. It’s an incredibly important location. It’s the seat of power in this country. The building is not like everything else on the mall in that it’s not just a palace filled—

David Adjaye: It’s not even Greek, yes.

Charlotte Burns: —with things, that’s not a reference to a civilization that came and went. How do you make that come to life? Because as Amy said, it’s a building associated with the Obama administration but really came to life in the Trump administration and 200 years of history before that, when it had been blocked by Congress. Which is to say, it’s marked by the politics.

David Adjaye: Yes, no. I think that the birthing, the kind of way in which the project came into being absolutely is under the kind of incredible opportunity of the Obama window, making it and completing it. It’s ironic seeing the Women’s March in front of it—how that building was used as a kind of foil for a activism was completely incredible to see, and powerful.

These buildings, for me, are long overdue. For me, it’s sad that they’re having to come now. They should have actually happened. In a way, for me they hinder our understanding of each other and our progress. So, there’s work that I think that these buildings need to do. Then there’s a language that they need to bring, which is about the reality rather than the fiction of nation imagery. I’m very interested in this idea. I mean, every nation needs to build a fiction to glorify their empire and their civilization. There’s a narrative in that. But I think that there’s a kind of conceit in it when it just becomes overly essentialized into one diagram. Especially in a place like America, which is about absolutely not one diagram. It’s one idea, but it is absolutely a plurality.

Amy Cappellazzo: We need a more complex narrative structure.

David Adjaye: Yes.

Amy Cappellazzo: That’s really what it is. For me, the very existence and success of the museum is its own righteous revenge on how long it took to get there. I just look at it like well, you might have been birthed in the last administration but I’m just… the way it just gleams in supernatural ecstasy on the Mall and everything else—the lines are just amazing. Still, it’s every day, its existence is testimonial to its success and its necessity.

Charlotte Burns: And also, the life. Whenever you visit, it’s packed with school children. You think very much about the—

David Adjaye: The mission of museums.

Charlotte Burns: The mission of museums, exactly. That I—

David Adjaye: To educate and edify whole communities.

Charlotte Burns: Exactly. Exactly. It’s whole communities, to grow up understanding that this is history. This is American history and it isn’t separate. It’s foundational.

David Adjaye: Correct.

Charlotte Burns: To be integrated into the mall, to have that position, is very powerful.

David Adjaye: But I would also suggest that all good buildings are built from political moments.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

David Adjaye: Yes. I mean, that’s the—

Amy Cappellazzo: That’s the truth.

David Adjaye: Chemistry and the soup that kind of creates those opportunities.

Charlotte Burns: Yes. You must have a particular personality to be able to constantly combat those tailwinds.

Amy Cappellazzo: Child of a diplomat. Let’s face it.

Charlotte Burns: That’s it. Yes.

David Adjaye: Well birthed is the game of negotiations.

Charlotte Burns: What’s your advice for people who need—

David Adjaye: Patience.

Charlotte Burns: Patience.

David Adjaye: Deadly patience and focus.

Charlotte Burns: Architecture is a practice that allows time, which is—

David Adjaye: Thankfully. It’s a long duration, as somebody said.

Charlotte Burns: This is—

David Adjaye: Epic duration, I think is what somebody said.

Amy Cappellazzo: Yes. Endless.

Charlotte Burns: A book that had essentially shaped the way that you think about the world called In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki.

David Adjaye: Tanizaki, yes.

Charlotte Burns: Which informed your thoughts on physical beauty and the way you looked at the world, and had a direct impact on how you think about architecture and the revelations of space within that. I thought that was quite beautiful, that a book could change a mind so, really form an impression that way.

Amy Cappellazzo: How quaint and sentimental, actually.

David Adjaye: A little bit romantic. But actually, it’s the book and the experience of actually living in Kyoto for a year and a half. I lived in Kyoto for a year and a half and I read that book. The book is slightly not so “PC” right now because it really is talking about a world in Japan and a kind of relationship, a male-female relationship which is maybe not so—

Amy Cappellazzo: Very binary.

David Adjaye: Very binary and old and not the way we look at things.

Amy Cappellazzo: That was then. It worked.

David Adjaye: Exactly. But what it did do was it actually kind of… It was amazing that the fact that it was written as words made me look at everything that I had taken for granted. It was a bolt of electricity that moved me out of the way in which I thought certain things meant certain things.

Amy Cappellazzo: Like what?

David Adjaye: Like light spaces meant good spaces and dark spaces meant bad spaces, which is a kind of fundamental, almost childlike innocence that we’re all constructed with. Yes? I mean it takes very amazing intelligence to be comfortable in dark space as a human being.

Charlotte Burns: So interesting. Yes.

David Adjaye: Most people are not.

Amy Cappellazzo: Right.

David Adjaye: And it’s a training. It’s a codification that we’ve made in society. In that book it reveals how that is fundamental to understanding the cultural mindset of that 18th century Japanese world. I was like, “Oh my God, it’s just the way we’re programmed. It’s not reality.”

Charlotte Burns: Yes. I’m just thinking of Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro.

David Adjaye: Yes.

Amy Cappellazzo: Exactly.

Charlotte Burns: And those things where you see the “heavenly light”.

David Adjaye: Yes, and the idea of illumination. In a way, for me, I suddenly realized that everything… Not even having the understanding that in my father’s cultural village—which is kind of a dark space—and these incredible dark spaces in those traditional, classical buildings that I knew that are disregarded as not being modern. I suddenly realized, “Oh my God.” There’s this entire world that affected me and I kind of knew, but sort of was trying to suppress. Actually, it’s part of that.

So, this idea of light and the expression of light and the visibility of light, not the reflection of light. I started to realize it imparted a kind of psychological way in which a person could see things. So, if you could use the idea of illumination and materiality and presence to speak about bringing, emanating things.

Charlotte Burns: That’s so fascinating. Also, this idea of education and the importance of learning and changing the way we think: we just spoke about future generations and the role of museums, but you’re very focused. Specifically, your architecture addresses the idea of educational networks. You’ve said that these three libraries you did in London have become incubators at a moment in which people thought libraries were—

David Adjaye: Dead.

Charlotte Burns: Dying. Yes. Actually, beyond dying, dead.

David Adjaye: Yes, dead.

Charlotte Burns: Your libraries have become incubators, places not just for books but for education. You just spoke to this when you were mentioning to Amy the idea of the dissolve from the street in Harlem at the Studio Museum.

In a podcast with Nick Serota, he mentioned that you were a member of a group working with him at the Arts Council investigating the benefits of creativity in the English education system.

I wanted to talk a little bit about that, because that civic sense seems to inform a lot of your thinking.

David Adjaye: Yes. For me, architecture is an opportunity to work as a public person in the public realm. For me, its agency is the ability to work in the public realm. The opportunity of that agency is to be able to be part of the framework that becomes—you know, I love this word—the edification of the coming generations. How do you have agency within that? How do you make something in that? I think for me, the clearest route is to go in at the way in which information is being given to generations that are coming in to the world. This idea of actually making architecture and reframing architecture that remakes the imagination at that level is, for me, critical.

Amy Cappellazzo: Have you ever been to Dhaka, to Louis Kahn’s building in Bangladesh?

David Adjaye: I took my students there. I’ve been there several times.

Amy Cappellazzo: Ah. I would say that’s an important place for you.

David Adjaye: A very important place for me.

Amy Cappellazzo: Makes sense.

Charlotte Burns: When did you begin to think that you could be an architect? I know you were studying art.

David Adjaye: Late. Late. In my 20s. I was like, “Um, I don’t know what to do.”

Charlotte Burns: What happened? How did you get from that to here?

David Adjaye: You know, life has these kinds of… I have three incredible people that have brought me to architecture. First was a schoolteacher. Then the person that actually introduced me to architecture was this man who I met who was just a lecturer, and one day I just had an amazing conversation with him about the power of architecture. It just went in like a bolt of electricity.

Amy Cappellazzo: So, you have an art background. What percentage of you is an artist and what percentage of you is a designer?

David Adjaye: That’s the judgment of Solomon.

Amy Cappellazzo: Let’s just get binary here for a second.

David Adjaye: Cleave yourself.

Amy Cappellazzo: I mean—

David Adjaye: For me there is no difference. One could argue in that—and I don’t mean it to be hierarchical—that architecture and art start in the same place, a kind of mechanism of making things and representations to speak to our idea of civilization. Actually, if that beginning is about those two worlds being completely blurred, I’m interested in that.

Charlotte Burns: Mmhmm. Right. Okay.

David Adjaye: Not in this idea of a professional that’s trained with a certain kind of technical expertise. I’m interested in the idea of the storyteller that constructs narratives about civilization.

Charlotte Burns: You were talking about this idea of nationhood, and you’re interested in the fictions and the stories that we tell ourselves. Dismantling that—

David Adjaye: Complicating.

Charlotte Burns: Complicating is the word. Yes, I got stuck. Complicating them.

Amy Cappellazzo: Look at France. They have the most like… powerful, singular constructed narrative.

David Adjaye:  Unbelievable.

Amy Cappellazzo: France is probably the one—

David Adjaye: The best.

Amy Cappellazzo: To dissect.

Charlotte Burns: Germany has a very masculine narrative. A lot of the buildings are military buildings. They’re on the edge of the country, whereas America has a narrative of freedom as expressed by a gift from the French, which is quite interesting. England has its, well, colonial history. This idea of—

David Adjaye: Empire.

Charlotte Burns: The empire, the empire builder which hasn’t really, well anyway… Brexit. We’ll get into that in a minute. The question I really want to get to here is this idea of nationhood and making things more complex, now you’re working on a national pavilion, which is supporting the idea of one particular nation. I thought that was kind of interesting.

David Adjaye: I thought it was fate having a joke on me.

Charlotte Burns:  Yes. That’s what it feels like a little bit. Tell us a little bit about the first Ghanaian Pavilion.

Amy Cappellazzo: First of all, where is it? It’s not in the Giardini.

David Adjaye: It’s actually in the Arsenale.

Amy Cappellazzo: In the Arsenale. Okay, good.

David Adjaye: Yes. So, it’s going to be sort of right at the end before the docks.

Amy Cappellazzo: I see. Got it.

David Adjaye: Yes. So, it’s in that area where they incubate national pavilions—

Amy Cappellazzo: Sure.

David Adjaye: It’s kind of small. If you’re lucky you get a big one later. What’s amazing about it—Nana Oforiatta Ayim is an incredible historian and curator that has been charged with working with the team to deliver it. It was myself, Okwui Enwezor, and her as a kind of triumverate to deliver this, each of us supporting. It’s sad that Okwui has left us. That’s been really very difficult for all of us, but we want to celebrate what he was able to give us in that time.

But essentially, the pavilion is about really acknowledging the contribution of West African artists in the art world who have risen to incredible heights, and to also talk about the sort of myth-making origin story. The national idea is a kind of myth-making origin story. In a way, Ghana is right now trying to reboot. It’s got an incredible charismatic leader who is a visionary, I think, and is interested in the development of the nation.

He’s interested. For 34 years, nobody’s been interested in the arts because it’s seen as “a poor country shouldn’t think about the arts”. We’re challenging that idea. We made representations with the cultural ministry. We said, “Look, you’re spending all this money on let’s say, CNN or somebody else and advertising tourism.” We’re like, “Actually, you have these incredible people that are out there in the world. If you just move that budget from this, where you think it’s a kind of in-out response, to a use of power in its real sense—your cultural production—you might get much more resonance.” That’s the argument that worked with this institution. They were like, “Oh, this is interesting.”

So, we’re an experiment. I mean, if it goes badly wrong, that’s the end of the budget and we’ll go back to normal advertising, in and out. But we’re—

Charlotte Burns: What’s the metric for success?

David Adjaye: The metric of success is the resonance.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

David Adjaye: I think it’s already succeeded because we’re talking about it, and that is all it needed. It was like, we’re talking about Ghana. You would never be talking about Ghana. So, it’s sort of succeeding. That’s what it was about. It was about trying to shift the rhetoric about what Ghana is. Of course, every developing country has incredible poverty and incredible wealth. What Ghana’s trying to show is that it is an emerging country, and it wants to grow, and it wants to be in the world. It has players that actually operate at the international level and it wants—

Amy Cappellazzo: Case in point right here, David Adjaye. Right?

David Adjaye: Thank you. It’s about that. In a weird way, Ghana has 15 different languages. In a weird way, it is a kind of modern national story. It isn’t a singular story. It is a super-polyphonous metropolitan mix. It negotiates Animism to Islam to Christianity, all at the same time and all have the same hierarchy. Actually, even building a cathedral now—which was also a little bit controversial, there’s actually a national mosque in Ghana before there’s a cathedral. Actually, most people are Christians but the mosque is the biggest religious structure in Ghana.

Amy Cappellazzo: Better funding, probably.

David Adjaye: Much better funding. Easy funding.

Amy Cappellazzo: Politics and—

David Adjaye: One person. Boom.

Amy Cappellazzo: Right.

David Adjaye: Yes.

Amy Cappellazzo: Cathedrals involve passing the hat. It’s a little trickier.

Charlotte Burns: There’s a similar way of thinking with memorials. I’m thinking specifically of the National Holocaust Memorial, which it’s a design of 23 large bronze fins.

David Adjaye: Yes. With Ron Arad. Yes.

Charlotte Burns: With Ron Arad.

David Adjaye: Ron Arad’s making the memorial part, which are the 23 fins. Yes.

Charlotte Burns: The jury praised the proposal for its ability to create a living place, not just a monument to something of the past. You’ve spoken—

David Adjaye: This is the project.

Charlotte Burns: Yes. You’ve spoken a little bit about the importance of that right now, specifically in this location in London next to Westminster. Can you talk us through your thinking about that?

David Adjaye: The competition site was actually chosen by the government.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

David Adjaye: People think we chose the site. “How dare you put it there?” No. The site was chosen. But my team, me, myself, Ron Arad, and our landscape designers decided that I absolutely didn’t want to make a kind of other tableau or a kind of object that just said, “horror, horror, horror.” The narrative about the Holocaust Memorial is that the British idea of empire, and the fact that they won the war has kind of made them feel like they didn’t ever need to acknowledge, on home ground—

Amy Cappellazzo: They weren’t complicit.

David Adjaye: Yes, they were fine.

Charlotte Burns: You’re never taught that in school in England.

David Adjaye: No. So—

Amy Cappellazzo: You were the heroes. You saved the day.

Charlotte Burns: That’s what you’re taught.

David Adjaye: That’s all you’re taught.

Charlotte Burns: Literally, the political moment that England is in is largely to do with the education system.

David Adjaye: Simply, it’s a fiction that’s been overplayed that’s now having massive—

Charlotte Burns: Repercussions because reality is not matching up with the romanticism of—

David Adjaye:  They were complicit in the rise of Germany—

Amy Cappellazzo: So many ways, right.

David Adjaye: They resisted. So, our strategy was to say things, and the English garden is a perfect metaphor of the national narrative. It’s “everything is perfect. Everything is beautifully placed.”

Amy Cappellazzo: Manicured and—

David Adjaye: Yes. So, we wanted to disrupt the garden. Yes. I’ve got into so much trouble for saying that word, disrupting. It’s not meant to be disrupting as in to make it difficult for people to use the garden. In fact, we’re making it better for people to use the park. It’s actually going to be much better drainage, more enhanced ability to see the water. It’s actually going to be a better park. But we’re disrupting the imagery of what a—

Charlotte Burns: The tamable.

David Adjaye:  The tamable landscape which says everything is fine, to one which says, “please look under what you think, look under the surface of these veneers that are made as fictions for you to kind of feel.”

Amy Cappellazzo: It’s the opposite of, “keep calm and carry on.”

David Adjaye: Yes.

Charlotte Burns: There’s a writer, Rebecca Solnit

David Adjaye: That was a monument.

Charlotte Burns: She’s written about the English obsession with outdoor space and gardening. It’s really interesting because the closest the English ever came to a national uprising was when the right to walk was interrupted in Manchester. That’s how they created public and private land, which are immutable.

David Adjaye: Immutable and defended to—

Amy Cappellazzo: The end. Right.

Charlotte Burns: Madonna couldn’t change it. Put it that way.

David Adjaye: Yes. Your rights. Yes.

Charlotte Burns: But she also spoke about this idea of the countryside—exactly what you’re talking about—the garden and this manicured space that wasn’t wild at all and it was to do with taming.

David Adjaye: Controlling.

Charlotte Burns: Women were only allowed to walk in that space with the men that walked them around that space.

David Adjaye: Correct.

Charlotte Burns: So, Jane Austen’s heroines who went tramping through the mud were wild.

David Adjaye: Wild. I mean.

Amy Cappellazzo: Rule breakers.

Charlotte Burns: In a way that we wouldn’t understand it now. It was a huge transgression of the social norm because the whole thing was to be mannered and contained, which is again about national identity. It’s quite interesting—

David Adjaye: You’ve got it.

Charlotte Burns: The idea of disrupting that.

David Adjaye: Yes. It’s disrupting the image.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Amy Cappellazzo: So, let me ask you—

David Adjaye: They’ve lost that.

Amy Cappellazzo: What are the 23? Why 23?

David Adjaye: So, 23 denotes the countries that were involved in the Holocaust. These are the countries that were affected by the Holocaust.

Amy Cappellazzo: Right. 23 nations.

David Adjaye: Yes. Which people don’t know, so that was also a way to kind of bring visibility to that.

Amy Cappellazzo: Right. Interesting. Okay.

Charlotte Burns: You have an exhibition “David Adjaye: Making Memory”, at the Design Museum in London, which has just had an extension until August.

David Adjaye: August.

Charlotte Burns: It explores this idea of how we remember things.

David Adjaye: Correct.

Charlotte Burns: Of how we imagine ourselves. Because of course, memory is an act of present and future thinking as well. You talk about this idea of setting up provocations or questions for the public. You said that you’re not scared of a narrative that unfolds and splinters. Really, it’s to do with big ideas. It’s to do with nations, and races, and communities, and what it means to be human, and what it means to have a civilization.

David Adjaye: Yes.

Charlotte Burns: That’s a lot to grapple with in your work all the time. How do you do all of these projects all over the world?

David Adjaye: It’s funny to me, these questions, because we’ve all been sort of numbed into never dealing with big questions.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

David Adjaye: And it’s like, well what the hell are we all doing here?

Amy Cappellazzo: Right.

David Adjaye: Like let’s deal with the questions because what else is it about? So—

Amy Cappellazzo: I tend to think in big, broad brushstrokes as well, like big questions. But don’t you play video poker once in a while or sort of like Candy Crush Saga or something?

Charlotte Burns: That’s kind of what I’m getting at. It’s like how do you fit it all in?

David Adjaye: I’m that personality that if I didn’t have what my mother would always say, a heavy stone on my back, I’d be bored and probably devious.

Amy Cappellazzo: Right. Right. Exactly. I certainly would have turned to crime without art. I’m positive of that.

David Adjaye: Exactly. It’s like it saved me.

Amy Cappellazzo: But it is important that there is somewhere, I think, an essential celebration of the mundane in some way that doing very mundane things keeps us very grounded.

David Adjaye: Totally.

Amy Cappellazzo: Actually, it’s completely human and unifying.

David Adjaye: Totally.

Amy Cappellazzo: It might be one of the only things that unifies all of us, is the act of buying a carton of milk, sharing mundane things with people.

Charlotte Burns: What they do, how you get through. I wanted to ask you a slightly more difficult question perhaps, which is about in 2009 when you were fighting off financial insolvency. You were one of the architects who was hit by the recession—

David Adjaye: Yes, massively.

Charlotte Burns: —in the UK. It seems in the intervening decade you’ve found a lot more fortune and reversed that situation—literally financially, but also maybe in the architectural freedom of thinking in America. I thought that was quite interesting too, because your practice was so long associated with specifically the UK and Africa. Now it’s—

David Adjaye: America.

Charlotte Burns: America too. That’s quite interesting.

David Adjaye: Yes. I’m so grateful for it. That’s the journey of the museum, really. Until it opened and had that critical success, that narrative wasn’t even there. I think when that museum tipped into becoming a cultural phenomena it suddenly opened up this possibility that a foreigner could also engage in the practice of cultural making. I’m really grateful for that. It is an incredible crucible, the idea of what the American landscape is. Contributing to constructing, reconstructing and rethinking that narrative is, for me, one of the gifts that architecture can… It’s one of the privileges that one can use architecture for that I feel I have aptitude for.

It’s so difficult. I mean, there are like 32,000 architects in London registered. London is a kind of crucible of, we’re like crabs in a bowl with everybody fighting for everything. In a way, because of that insolvency I kind of looked to America. I got two competitions that I won. I won the Denver Art Museum and I built that, and then I won the Studio Museum shortly after that. Not the Studio Museum, the Smithsonian. In a way that forced me to look at the idea of practice in a very different way. It actually changed me from being somebody that was focused on a specific region to thinking about a practice as something that was an opportunity globally. That shift for me—

Charlotte Burns: Interesting.

David Adjaye: Yes. That was a big shift in 2008, 2009, and 2010. That’s when I won the Smithsonian. It was like, “Oh my God. This is not about the waiting for something to happen in your neighborhood. It’s about going to find where the opportunities are in the world.” For me, the idea of making architecture is 50% waiting for the commission and also 50% going to where the opportunity might be.

Charlotte Burns: Where do you see the opportunity going ahead?

David Adjaye: Wherever there’s a kind of construction or narrative about why and where we live.

Amy Cappellazzo: Or wherever there’s a big political situation happening because that’s what’s yielding great buildings is sort of political friction. That’s when you get—

David Adjaye: When there’s a moment when there’s a kind of rethinking.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

David Adjaye: This is a moment when I think architecture is really powerful.

Charlotte Burns: No, absolutely, and that’s what you’re talking about, the possibilities to have these conversations with the Ghanaian government. Even the memorial in London, which is interesting because London doesn’t typically engage with—

David Adjaye: At all.

Charlotte Burns: I find that, living in America, there are many more conversations about what it means to be an American—

David Adjaye: Of course.

Charlotte Burns: And what history means—

David Adjaye: Yes. We don’t talk about that.

Charlotte Burns: Than there are in England. It’s just sorts of accepted that this is what this means.

David Adjaye: Yes. Because it’s a fact. It was the empire.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Amy Cappellazzo: It’s a tighter narrative.

David Adjaye: Yes. You don’t even need to question it. It’s completed. You’re just living it.

Charlotte Burns: Right. Exactly. I know that we’re almost running out of time. Is there anything that you wanted to talk about that we didn’t get to?

David Adjaye: Ruby City.

Charlotte Burns: Ruby City. Yes.

David Adjaye: Ruby City.

Charlotte Burns: Of course.

David Adjaye: An amazing project for Linda Pace, an incredible patron. A small little jewel in San Antonio, but something that’s very, very magical and special. Because I love what Linda did. I mean, I took the commission. Issac Julien brought me to her. I love it when artists introduce me to work. For me, it’s like the most blessed way to get a project, to let another artist bring you in. I don’t know. It creates a kind of different energy. With Linda, I love this idea of her setting up our pace and this idea of the incubator. So many artists have gone through that that I now know quite well. This idea of making for her a pavilion. I mean, it’s essentially a pavilion. A pavilion to be able to display her collection, but I hope eventually also be able to be an arena where those Pace projects also get shown.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

David Adjaye: The building is a sort of little concentration of the idea of the evolution of where art is shown. It’s a little play on—from the house, the barn, or the yardbox, to the designed clerestory to the factory. It’s a little thing about Europe.

Charlotte Burns: That’s so interesting.

David Adjaye: America.

Amy Cappellazzo: Yes, Yes. The evolution, Yes.

David Adjaye: Yes, and France.

Charlotte Burns: So much—

David Adjaye: That’s the kind of little idea.

Charlotte Burns: There’s so much we didn’t get to. I wanted to ask you a little bit about art versus commodification, which is something you talked about to Okwui. Do you have five minutes?

David Adjaye: Yes.

Charlotte Burns: Let me ask you, you mentioned working with Okwui and you collaborated with him several times. You designed the structure—

David Adjaye: He’s an incredible mentor, friend, collaborator.

Charlotte Burns: One of the greatest thinkers of—

David Adjaye: I think of our time.

Amy Cappellazzo: Visionary.

Charlotte Burns: Yes. Agreed. He organized the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015 and you organized the structure that housed the exhibition “All the World’s Futures”. You said something I thought was quite interesting: “I wanted to create an environment that is more connected to the experience of the nature of art, much more than cataloging or archiving artworks, and quite different to the commodification of art into a rarefied experience of value.” I wanted to talk to you about taking it off that pedestal in that way and what that means to you, because you’ve come to architecture through art. Some of your earliest collaborations were with artists. You design artists’ homes and studios as a regular part of your practice.

David Adjaye: I’m on the artists’ side. For me, that is the only way you can look at art. Because I’ve worked with artists in their studios and I’ve seen how they make things, I feel that that’s an incredible privilege that I’ve had. For me, the chemistry that brings an artwork into the world is a very powerful chemistry. Most of the artists that I know, that I love and work with, want that art to somehow exist in the world with that sort of aura. I’ve made it my mission to be interested in the notion of that aura rather than how it’s placed in the world.

Amy Cappellazzo: Just to be polemical, I think when you sell a work of art you take it off the pedestal and really understand its aura. It’s actually the process of selling it that absolutely takes it off its pedestal and understands the origin and power of its making.

David Adjaye: Absolutely.

Amy Cappellazzo: And everything else is constructed narrative.

David Adjaye: Everything else is constructed.

Amy Cappellazzo: Everything else is institutional infrastructure.

David Adjaye: Exactly.

Amy Cappellazzo: But when you sit in a crappy fluorescently lit warehouse and you stare at an object that is not put in any special lighting or—

David Adjaye: That’s a beautiful moment.

Amy Cappellazzo: In a scratched, lousy frame and you stare at it, if it has the magic you know it.

David Adjaye: Yes.

Amy Cappellazzo: It’s only in the process of moving it through the marketplace that it tells you the truth about what it is.

Charlotte Burns: Yes. That’s interesting.

David Adjaye: Yes. Beautiful.

Charlotte Burns: Final question. Dream project?

David Adjaye: Oh, no. I’m doing dream projects.

Charlotte Burns: You’re doing them all?

David Adjaye: I’m keeping my mouth shut to the universe.

Amy Cappellazzo: Cursing it really.

David Adjaye: I have enough on my table. I’m very happy.

Charlotte Burns: Thank you so much, David, for being our guest today.

David Adjaye: It was a pleasure.

Charlotte Burns: Thank you, Amy. This has been—

Amy Cappellazzo: Thank you.

Charlotte Burns: Pretty interesting.

Amy Cappellazzo: Pleasure.

 

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